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And theorists shall talk theory unto theorists

I wouldn’t normally link to one of my own reviews like this, but this review of Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville raises some issues that might be taken further.I have to say at the outset that my own critical stance is not Marxist, but I have found a lot of Marxist criticism very useful. Actually, most of the fruitful ways of talking about science fiction seem to come back to Marxism at some point. (Is there any literary ‘Theory’ that doesn’t have Marxism as, at least, its grandfather?)
But when I read Marxist criticism (or, to be a little more precise, when I read the work of those most steeped in Marxist criticism) I keep coming up against the same issues. These seemed to be particularly clearly on display in the book I reviewed. I’ll summarise the main points here:

  1. The criticism is authoritarian in that it is heavily and inevitably reliant on authority figures. All it takes to win the argument is to throw in a suitably weighty name – Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson and Zizek seem to be particular favourites at the moment (though there are fashions in this).
  2. The criticism is authoritarian in that it is deliberately voiced in an hieratic rather than demotic language. I know the language of academic criticism is intended for precision, but its effect is to make huge swathes of it virtually unreadable for anyone not already trained in the theory.
  3. The criticism is authoritarian in that theory holds sway over everything, even chronology. I have lost count of the times I have seen works criticised for failing to allow for certain theoretical perspectives that were not formulated until long after the work in question was published. So once stated, a theory is true for all time.
  4. The criticism is authoritarian in that theory is never allowed to lose. If there is any clash between theory and practice, then the practice is wrong. If there is a contrast between what a novelist presents in a work of fiction and what a theorist says should be, then the theory will not be adjusted to suit the situation.

And in general, it always seems that the theorists are talking primarily to other theorists. They may be writing about literature, but their concern is not with the literature but rather with the theories they can apply, the theorists they can call upon. As I say, if you can untangle all this, there is often stuff of value to be found. But I do feel that they are not really talking to me, or to anyone else whose primary interest is with the literature.
So how do you approach Marxist criticism?

8 thoughts on “And theorists shall talk theory unto theorists

  1. “Red planets and Marxism”?? That is almost too coincidental. Look at this comic strip: http://wp.me/pMW8w-gL

    As for Marxist criticism, it has some mild application for systems of pure capitalism, pre-Teddy Roosevelt, etc. But beyond that it is a doctrine of reverse-slavery (the productive under the yoke of the unproductive).

  2. are you calling theory in general authoritarian or marxist theory in particular?

    also, i have a little trouble talking about marxist criticism as a monolithic theory-type. there is a world of difference between derrida’s ‘spectres of marx’ and, say, something by lukacs. i think that theory/criticism can be extremely helpful as a writer who is trying to writer medium-responsive texts.

    as for your specific points:

    1)yes, it is common to rely on the borrowed authority of prominent figures when writing criticism, although this is often simply because those thinkers provide the useful frameworks through which the text can be analyzed. this is also because those names function as shorthand. still, a valid complaint.

    2)have you see the book ‘just being difficult’ (jonathan culler, ed.)? it’s a really good response to this critique. I really do think it is ok to write theory for people interested in reading theory and that it is ok that you need a certain amount of practice/training to become a competent reader of theory. this same expectation of earned competency is unchallenged when it comes to things like difficult technical science questions or economic questions, even (more or less) with difficult poetry or art.

    3) yeah, sort of. but this can also be appropriate if couched properly. for example, see how the discussion of the function of canonical texts as they produce western notions of the orient is explained by the theory of orientalism even as these texts are necessarily dating from before that theory’s development.

    4) well, the theory advanced is not typically allowed to lose in any given theoretical paper. theory can lose to other theories, can lose in discussion, can lose in the mind of the reader who says ‘i completely disagree with your take on x novel’. but of course theory cannot lose on its own terms because a theoretical essay is almost always developed as an argument, and so of course the author wants to prove a point and believes in the accuracy of said point.

    all of this is to say, theory is (or can be) useful. like anything, there are good and bad examples of theory in practice (i know, ha) but i think that diagnosing theory as a whole as authoritarian is unfair. there are certainly examples that i think fit your criteria as overreaching, obscurantist, authoritarian, etc.- unfortunately i think your diagnosis of the field falls into some of the same over-reaching and authoritarian traps you describe.

    1. Okay, there’s a lot to discuss here. So let me start by saying I am calling Marxist theorists authoritarian. And I treat it as monolithic because it tends to self-identify as monolithic. The book I was reviewing was part of a long, on-going series all called ‘Marxism and …’, and I have lost count of the number of books I have contributed to or reviewed which have chapters titled something like ‘Marxism and science fiction’. Although there is an awful lot of other theory out there (“Is there any literary ‘Theory’ that doesn’t have Marxism as, at least, its grandfather?”), and although so much Marxist criticism tends to include some level of setting one authority against another, there is clearly a sense in which Marxist theory sees itself as one thing.

      To other points:

      1) It is actually not common to rely on other authority figures to settle an argument in criticism, except in Marxist criticism. Yes, the names do act as a shorthand (again an example of excluding those who are not already schooled in Marxist criticism, since the nuance of Adorno versus Althusser is likely to pass a general reader by), but they also act as a way of closing down argument: X said it so we don’t need to question the theory any further.

      2) I haven’t seen the Culler book, sounds like I should seek it out. I don’t mind theorists talking hieratically to other theorists, and am willing to take part in some of those conversations. Where I object is when theorists talk hieratically to theorists in work that is supposedly aimed at a more general reader. A lot of the works on science fiction that I read are actually meant to be as accessible to the informed reader of science fiction as they are to other Marxist critics. But too many of them are simply not written that way. And it is not simply a matter of assumed competence. (I would, by the way, be as critical of a physicist writing entirely in equations in a work supposedly aimed at a general reader.)

      3) What you are talking about here and what I am talking about are two different things. I agree entirely that a modern theory can throw fascinating and revealing light on older works of literature. But what I am talking about is a critic saying: “Author X presents such and such a situation which is interesting when examined from a Marxist perspective; however she fails to take account of a theoretical idea first advanced five years after her novel was published and so the novel must be considered a failure”. I came across a variant of that in two of the essays in the book I was reviewing, and it is something I have encountered numerous times elsewhere.

      4) I don’t expect the theorist to say that his theory loses. What I do expect is the theorist to question and test his theory.

      And yes, theory is often useful; I have learned a lot from reading Marxist criticism and it has helped in the development of my own critical perspectives, even if I do not consider myself a Marxist critic. But I do think applications of Marxist theory have been authoritarian (I happen to think that is true in the case of a number of political as well as literary applications of Marxist theory).

      And yes, I am happy to consider whether I am being over-reaching and authoritarian. It is very often the case that an attack on authoritarianism results in the attacker being authoritarian, so it is highly likely that what I say might be seen that way. It is not what I intend, but it might be the effect.

  3. My own experience has been that much of Marxist criticism–though by no means all–tends to read literature as if it itself were conducting a kind of critique, or at least advancing an (a single) argument. Which means that many Marxist critics end up liking the same sorts of work that other folks who read fiction through a primarily political or moral lens do: mostly mimetic realism, because it’s easiest to say with some confidence what it’s *about,* and therefore to argue that it’s right or wrong.

    On the other hand, if you don’t necessarily think that the most important thing about literature (or art more generally) is its message, it’s hard to make a really convincing argument for why such-and-such piece is good (politically or morally) vs. some other piece. Instead, you focus on the aesthetics, on the form. Unfortunately, most of us have been raised to think this is a fairly hedonist (& therefore bad) position. The underlying assumption, I think, is something like: If your work isn’t enacting social change, what is it doing? Which sounds nice, but which, I’d argue, is ultimately an anti-aesthetic (and anti-art) position. It’s saying that creating something beautiful isn’t enough, that beauty must always give way to the larger social good. Which leads one to either accept one’s place as a propagandist, or else brings into question why one is writing in the first place.

    1. It has been pointed out to me many times that theory is a toolbox, from which you can extract the approach suitable to the case. At that level, I think theory is vital for any literary critic. But just as there are workmen who will reach for the same hammer whether they are driving in a nail or a screw, so there seem to be some critics who aren’t prepared to pick and choose their theoretical approach.

      Again, I must stress, I know some excellent critics who use Marxism revealingly in their work. But I have read others who don’t, and it’s the others my review was addressed to.

      So yes, there are times when it may be best to approach a work from a political perspective, or a feminist perspective, or a postcolonial perspective, or an aesthetic perspective, or an economic perspective, and so on and so on. Each of these can be revealing and valuable, but none is ever going to be the entire and only approach worth taking. And actually it is a rare work of fiction that cannot sustain several different, perhaps antithetical readings.

  4. There is no excuse for the use of assertion rather than argument leading to a reasoned conclusion. But in the use of a meta-tag such as “Marxism and. . .”, authors are at least stating their cherished belief at the outset. One of the blights to good discourse is the failure to identify the belief systems the authors cherish and which, by virtue of their affection, may skew their perspective. With the banner of a philosophical mindset declared ab initio, a dispassionate reader can determine the extent to which propositions and evidence filtered through the lens of those beliefs have been diverted from the process of constructing “proper” chains of argument to reach a sustainable conclusion.

  5. One intriguing exception is H. Bruce Franklin, whose book on Heinlein is readable and useful in understanding Heinlein. Maybe the reason is that Franklin uses Marxism straight, rather than Marxist literary theory.

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